What’s more exciting than a bookstore that can print its own paperback novels on demand? For this week’s Bookspot we interviewed Robert Zarffiris with Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore and Café. If you’re a fan of books or espresso be sure to check out this unique local bookstore. You can find Shakespeare & Co. at three different locations across the Manhattan and Philadelphia area!
How did your bookstore transition from concept to reality?
There were a number of Shakespeare & Co. bookstores in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2015, there was only one left, on Lexington Avenue, across the street from Hunter College. Dane Neller, CEO of On Demand Books, took over the lease and purchased the Shakespeare & Co. trademark. Dane’s vision was to create community-based bookstores with a lovely café for customers to convene, socialize, and browse and to provide a forum for self-expression and creation thanks to the Espresso Book Machine technology. A perfect trifecta of community, culture, and technology.
The Lexington Avenue bookstore went through a big renovation in November 2015, with the addition of a café and The Espresso Book Machine. It was to become the blueprint for two other stores that opened in 2018, one in Philadelphia, near Rittenhouse Square, and one on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
What do you feel is unique to your bookstore?
What makes us unique is the combination of these elements (bookstore, café, and Espresso Book Machine) that work in unison to make a great consumer experience. Our knowledgeable and friendly employees are at the forefront of our café, bookselling, and Espresso Book Machine services. It’s analogous to a great restaurant—what’s more important: the food, service, or ambiance? They are all important! We pride ourselves on high-quality food, eclectic staff recommendations, curated book offerings, ambiance, and, of course, The Espresso Book Machine -which can produce a bookstore-quality paperback in mere minutes. It is a dream vehicle for on-demand printing. It allows us to print millions of books in a small footprint store and it offers self-published authors a venue to bring their works to market. We carry most best-selling hardcover titles and have the most popular books in stock, but for those harder to find paperbacks, the Espresso Book Machine fills the gap, thus satisfying consumers’ varied interests. Backlist titles from major publishers like Harper Collins, Houghton Mifflin, Penguin Random House, and Presses Universitaires de France are all becoming available. Dane Neller says that his vision has always been to create “the biggest little bookshop in the world.”
If you had infinite space, what might you add to the store?
That’s the point! With the Espresso Book Machine, we don’t need to add more products as we are confident that all customers can find a book to their liking or if not, we can print it. One of the biggest costs for bookstores is the rent. As a result, we need to find a new store configuration and business model for independents to thrive in the future. We believe we have that new model.
How do you feel your bookstore fits into your local community?
We aim to have our patrons, whom we often know by name, frequent our stores many times during a given week or month. Many come in for their morning coffee and breakfast, stop in with a friend to chat, browse our books for personal consumption or to find a gift, or attend our author/book events (which have migrated to Zoom until we can safely gather in person again). We know our local customers very well and adapt our offerings accordingly. Some stores will have a larger literary fiction or mystery section, while others will have more graphic novels or a shelf dedicated to local authors.
What does your bookspot offer that a chain or online retailer can’t?
Great personalized attention, plus, we have great coffee and pastries! Our booksellers are always ready to give suggestions or to talk about their favorite reads. Our customers know them by name, chat with them, and trust their advice. I’m always impressed with the diversity of staff choices and their knowledge across all genres. We will order a book if we don’t have it or can’t print it on the EBM. We also take orders by phone and online.
Do you hand-pick your staff to create a specific environment?
We have a staff that works well together, is friendly, and knows our customer base well. Our patrons like the atmosphere we’ve created. It doesn’t have a corporate feel, a cookie-cutter atmosphere, or so they tell us.
How else do you create a welcoming environment?
Our bookstores have an old-fashioned bookstore feel. Our book tables and shelves are organized with the covers facing out, enabling easy browsing and comfort. We also have take-out and sidewalk tables at all our locations. Our customers are so loyal, it is quite rewarding to hear their expressions of gratitude during these challenging times. Although full social interaction is still restricted, customers are thrilled that we are open and providing the safest possible environment by adhering to all government Covid-19 guidelines.
What about your store do you think appeals to your neighborhood?
Our customers tell us they are delighted to have an independent bookstore in the neighborhood. They enjoy the convenience, the relaxed feeling, and the convivial atmosphere. In addition to the bookstore and café, we have author events, book talks, and create a gathering place that is safe and enjoyable.
Do you have any staff picks or releases we should watch out for?
Is there anything else that you’d like our audience to know?
Community bookstores are of critical importance to enhancing any neighborhood. Right now, we encourage you to shop early and not wait for the holiday rush. The fall is always a busy period for books but this year, we’re seeing an exceptional crop of major titles, from Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults to Marilynne Robinson’s Jack. We encourage you to stop in and visit or, if you already are a patron, we thank you for all you do to help us be successful.
You can find Shakespeare & Co. at the following locations:
Upper East Side, Manhattan: 939 Lexington Avenue
Upper West Side, Manhattan: 2020 Broadway
Philadelphia (Rittenhouse): 1632 Walnut Street
If you’re close by, be sure to stop in, and don’t forget to support your local bookstores! Check out last week’s Bookspot here.